[1.III.2] Cycling (Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu)

Cycling is the best technique-building procedure for things like new or fast passages you cannot handle. Cycling (also called "looping") is taking a segment and playing it repeatedly; usually continually, without breaks. If the conjunction needed for cycling continually is the same as the first note of the segment, this segment cycles naturally; it is called a self-cycling segment. An example is the CGEG quadruplet. If the conjunction is different, you need to invent one that leads to the first note so you can cycle without breaks.

Cycling is basically pure repetition, but it is important to use it almost as an anti-repetition procedure, a way to avoid mindless repetition. The idea behind cycling is that you acquire technique so rapidly that it eliminates unnecessary, mindless repetition. In order to avoid picking up bad habits, change the speed and experiment with different hand/arm/finger positions for optimum play and always work for relaxation; try not to cycle the exact same thing too many times. Play softly (even loud sections) until you attain the technique, get up to speeds at least 20% above final speed and, if possible, up to 2 times final speed. Over 90% of cycling time should be at speeds that you can handle comfortably and accurately. Then cycle down gradually to very slow speeds. You are done when you can play at any speed for any length of time, without looking at the hand, completely relaxed, and with full control. You might find that certain intermediate speeds give trouble. Practice these speeds because they may be needed when you start HT. For segments with chords or jumps, make sure that you can cycle without looking at the hand. Practice without the pedal (partly to avoid the bad habit of not pressing down completely through the key drop) until the technique is attained. Change hands frequently to avoid injury.

If a technique requires 10,000 repetitions (a typical requirement for really difficult material), cycling allows you to get them done in the shortest possible time. Representative cycle times are about 1 sec, so 10,000 cycles is less than 4 hours. If you cycle this segment for 10 min. per day, 5 days a week, 10,000 cycles will take almost a month. Clearly, very difficult material will take months to learn using the best methods, and much longer if you use less efficient methods.

Cycling is potentially the most injurious of any piano practice procedure, so please be careful. Don't over-do it the first day, and see what happens the next day. If nothing is sore the next day, you can continue or increase the cycling workout. Above all, whenever you cycle, always work on two at a time, one for the RH and another for the LH so that you can switch hands frequently. For young people, over-cycling can result in pain; in that case, stop cycling, and the hand should recover in a few days. In older people, over-cycling can cause osteo-arthritic flare-ups that can take months to subside.

Let's apply cycling to Chopin's FI: the left hand arpeggio, bar 5. The first six notes cycle by themselves, so you might try that. When I first tried it, the stretch was too much for my small hands, so I got tired too quickly. What I did was to cycle the first 12 notes. The second, easier six notes allowed my hands to rest a little and therefore enabled me to cycle the 12 note segment longer and at higher speed. Of course, if you really want to increase speed (not necessary for the LH but might be useful for the RH in this piece) cycle only the first parallel set (the first three or four notes for the LH).

Just because you can play the first segment does not mean that you can now play all the other arpeggios. You will need to start practically from scratch even for the same notes one octave down. Of course, the second arpeggio will be easier after mastering the first one, but you may be surprised at how much work you need to repeat when a very small change is made in the segment. This happens because there are so many muscles in your body that your brain can choose a different set of muscles to produce motions that are only slightly different (and it usually does). Unlike a robot, you have little choice about which muscles your brain is going to pick. Only when you have done a very large number of such arpeggios does the next one come easily. Therefore, you should expect to have to cycle quite few arpeggios.

In order to understand how to play this Chopin piece, it is helpful to analyze the mathematical basis of the 3 versus 4 timing part of this composition. The RH plays very fast, say 4 notes per half second (approximately). At the same time, the LH is playing at a slower rate, 3 notes per half second. If all the notes are played very accurately, the audience hears a note frequency equivalent to 12 notes per half second, because this frequency corresponds to the smallest time interval between notes. That is, if your RH is playing as fast as it can, then by adding a SLOWER play with the LH, Chopin succeeded in accelerating this piece to 3 times your maximum speed!

But wait, not all of the 12 notes are present; there are actually only 7, so 5 notes are missing. These missing notes create what is called a Moiré pattern, which is a third pattern that emerges when two incommensurate patterns are superposed. This pattern creates a wavelike effect within each measure and Chopin reinforced this effect by using a LH arpeggio that rises and falls like a wave in synchrony with the Moiré pattern. The acceleration of a factor of 3 and the Moiré pattern are mysterious effects that sneak up on the audience because they have no idea what created them, or that they even exist. Mechanisms that affect the audience without their knowledge often produce more dramatic effects than ones that are obvious (such as loud, legato, or rubato). The great composers have invented an incredible number of these hidden mechanisms and a mathematical analysis is often the easiest way to flush them out. Chopin probably never thought in terms of incommensurate sets and Moiré patterns; he just intuitively understood these concepts because of his genius.

It is instructive to speculate on the reason for the missing 1st note of the measure (bar 5) in the RH because if we can decipher the reason, we will know exactly how to play it. Note that this occurs at the very beginning of the RH melody. At the beginning of a melody or a musical phrase, composers always run into two contradictory requirements: one is that any phrase should (in general) begin softly, and the second is that the first note of a measure is a downbeat and should be accented. The composer can neatly satisfy both requirements by eliminating the first note, thus preserving the rhythm and yet start softly (no sound in this case)! You will have no trouble finding numerous examples of this device -- see Bach's Inventions. Another device is to start the phrase at the end of a partial measure so that the first downbeat of the first full measure comes after a few notes have been played (a classic example of this is the beginning of the first movement of Beethoven's Appassionata). This means that the first note of the RH in this measure of Chopin's FI must be soft and the second note louder than the first, in order to strictly preserve the rhythm (another example of the importance of rhythm!). We are not used to playing this way; the normal play is to start the first note as a downbeat. It is especially difficult in this case because of the speed; therefore this beginning may need extra practice.

This composition begins by gradually drawing the audience into its rhythm like an irresistible invitation, after calling attention to itself with the loud octave of bar 1 followed by the rhythmic arpeggio in the lower staff. The missing note in bar 5 is restored after several repetitions, thus doubling the Moiré repeat frequency and the effective rhythm. In the second theme (bar 13), the flowing melody of the RH is replaced by two broken chords, thus giving the impression of quadrupling the rhythm. This "rhythmic acceleration" culminates in the climactic forte of bars 19-20. The audience is then treated to a breather by a "softening" of the rhythm created by the delayed RH melodic (pinky) note and then its gradual fading, accomplished by the diminuendo down to PP. The whole cycle is then repeated, this time with added elements that heighten the climax until it ends in the descending crashing broken chords. For practicing this part, each broken chord might be individually cycled. These chords lack the 3,4 construct and bring you back out from the mysterious 3,4 nether-world, preparing you for the slow section.

As with most Chopin pieces, there is no "correct" tempo for this piece. However, if you play faster than about 2 seconds/bar, the 3x4 multiplication effect tends to disappear and you are usually left with mostly the Moiré and other effects. This is partly because of decreasing accuracy with speed but more importantly because the 12x speed becomes too fast for the ear to follow. Above about 20 Hz, repetitions begin to take on the properties of sound to the human ear. Therefore the multiplication device works only up to a certain speed of about 20 Hz; above that, you get a new effect, which is even more special than incredible speed – the "rapid notes" turn into a "low frequency sound". Thus 20 Hz is a kind of sound barrier. This is why the lowest note of the piano is an A at about 27 Hz. Here's is the big surprise: there is evidence that Chopin heard this effect! Note that the fast part is initially labeled "Allegro agitato", which means that each note must be clearly audible. On the metronome, Allegro corresponds to a 12X speed of 10 to 20 Hz, the right frequency to hear the multiplication, just below the "sound barrier". "Agitato" ensures that this frequency is audible. When this fast section returns after the Moderato section, it is labeled Presto, corresponding to 20 to 40 Hz -– he wanted us to play it below and above the sound barrier! Therefore, there is mathematical evidence suggesting that Chopin knew about this sound barrier.

The slow middle section was described briefly in section II.25. The fastest way to learn it, like many Chopin pieces, is to start by memorizing the LH. This is because the chord progression often remains the same even when Chopin replaces the RH with a new melody, because the LH mainly provides the accompaniment chords. Notice that the 4,3 timing is now replaced by a 2,3 timing played much more slowly. It is used for a different effect, to soften the music and allowing a freer, tempo rubato.

The third part is similar to the first except that it is played faster, resulting in a totally different effect, and the ending is different. This ending is difficult for small hands and may require extra RH cycling work. In this section, the RH pinky carries the melody, but the answering thumb octave note is what enriches the melodic line. The piece ends with a nostalgic restatement of the slow movement theme in the LH. Distinguish the top note of this LH melody (G# - bar 7 from the end) clearly from the same note played by the RH by holding it slightly longer and then sustain it with the pedal.

The G# is the most important note in this piece. Thus the beginning sf G# octave is not only a fanfare introducing the piece, but a clever way for Chopin to implant the G# into the listeners' minds. Therefore, don't rush this note; take your time and let it sink in. If you look throughout this piece, you will see that the G# occupies all the important positions. In the slow section, the G# is an Ab, which is the same note. This G# is another one of those devices in which a great composer is reperatedly "hitting the audience on the head with a two-by-four" (G#), but the audience has no idea what hit them. For the pianist, knowledge about the G# helps interpret and memorize the piece. Thus the conceptual climax of this piece comes at the end (as it should) when both hands must play the same G# (bars 8 and 7 from the end); therefore, this LH-RH G# must be executed with the utmost care, while maintaining the continuously fading RH G# octave.

Our analysis brings into sharp focus, the question of how fast to play this piece. High accuracy is required to bring out the 12-note effect and inhumanly accurate playing above the sound barrier. If you are learning this piece for the first time, the 12-note frequency may not be audible initially because of lack of accuracy. When you finally "get it" the music will all of a sudden sound very "busy". If you play too fast and lose the accuracy, you can lose that factor of three -- it just washes out and the audience hears only the 4 notes. For beginners the piece can be made to sound faster by slowing down and increasing the accuracy. Although the RH carries the melody, the LH must be clearly heard; otherwise, both the 12-note effect and the Moiré pattern will disappear. This being a Chopin piece, there is no requirement that the 12-note effect be heard; this composition is amenable to an infinity of interpretations, and some may want to suppress the LH and concentrate of the RH, and still produce something magical.

An advantage of cycling is that the hand is playing continually which simulates continuous playing better than if you practiced isolated segments. It also allows you to experiment with small changes in finger position, etc., in order to find the optimum conditions for playing. The disadvantage is that the hand movements in cycling may be different from those needed to play the piece. The arms tend to be stationary while cycling whereas in the actual piece, the hands usually need to move. Therefore, in those cases in which the segment does not naturally cycle, you may need to use segmental practice.